I WANT MY HAPPY HIPPO, MY-OH-MY
The hippopotamus is an amazing creature that is often overlooked due to their co-inhabitance with the other, more popular charismatic megafauna of sub-Saharan Africa. However, in my time in Africa, with their permanent grin, constant flatulence, endearing grunts, and lazy attitude, I learned to love this species immensely. Their reputation of being dangerous is justified, but not so much due to their aggression as to people being disrespectful and encroaching on their space, or due to the lack of people being able to swim when their boat is capsized. We used to go “hippocamping” regularly and the hippos surrounding our tent provided me with a feeling of comfort and safety. After all, the incessant loud chewing or the grunt of the hippos meant there were no lions or elephants around our tent. These animals always make me smile and I never tire of their presence.
The common hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius) is a large, mostly herbivorous, semiaquatic mammal native to sub-Saharan Africa, and one of only two extant species in the family Hippopotamidae, the other being the pygmy hippopotamus (Choeropsis liberiensis or Hexaprotodon liberiensis). The name comes from the ancient Greek for “horse of the river”. After the elephant and rhinoceros, the common hippopotamus is the third largest land mammal. Despite their physical resemblance to pigs, the closest living relatives of the Hippopotamidae are cetaceans (whales, dolphins, porpoises, etc.) from which they diverged about 55 million years ago.
Adult males average 1,500 kg (3,310 lb) with the females being slightly smaller, weighing in at 1,300 kg (2,870 lb). Despite their stocky shape and short legs, they are capable of running 30 km/h over short distances. Hippos live in groups, called pods, herds, dales or bloats of up to thirty animals. The pods inhabit rivers, lakes and mangrove swamps, where bulls are very protective over their territory, which has given them their reputation of being dangerous. They emerge at dusk to graze on grasses and return to water in the morning to avoid the heat of the sun. Grazing is a solitary activity and, unless they have young with them, the hippos are not territorial or aggressive on land. The hippopotamus is one of the most dangerous animals in the world as it is highly aggressive and unpredictable. However, many of the deaths associated with hippos are due to drowning from hippos overturning fishing boats.
Hippos historically covered the lower 2/3 of the African continent, but their land has significantly reduced, due to drought and habitat loss, rendering them confined to small pockets of water from as far north as Ethiopia, west to The Gambia, and extending to South Africa. Hippos are also subject to unregulated hunting and poaching, both for their meat and their ivory tusks. In May 2006, the hippopotamus was identified as a vulnerable species on the IUCN Red List drawn up by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), with an estimated population of between 125,000 and 150,000 hippos, a decline of between 7% and 20% since the IUCN’s 1996 study. Zambia (40,000) and Tanzania (20,000–30,000) possess the largest populations.
The hippo population declined most dramatically in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, likely due to the ramifications of the Second Congo War. By 2005, the population in Virunga National Park had dropped to 800 or 900 from around 29,000 in the mid-1970s. Reasons for poaching include the belief that hippos are harmful to society, as well as financial gain from the bushmeat and ivory trades. Hippo meat is considered a delicacy in some areas of central Africa and the teeth have become a valued substitute for elephant ivory. The DRC remains unstable and many of the poachers pose as fisherman and paddle into the national parks in Uganda at night to set snares for hippos. It is difficult for the Ugandan government to regulate the poaching in the waters of Lake Albert and Lake Edward due to the legal fishing that is allowed offshore.
Interesting Fact: In the late 1980s, Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar kept four hippos in a private menagerie at his residence in Hacienda Nápoles, 100 kilometres east of Medellín, Colombia, after buying them in New Orleans. They were deemed too difficult to seize and move after Escobar’s death, and hence left on the untended estate. By 2007, the animals had multiplied to 16 and had taken to roaming the area for food in the nearby Magdalena River. In 2009, two adults and one calf escaped the herd and, after attacking humans and killing cattle, one of the adults (called “Pepe”) was killed by hunters under authorization of the local authorities. As of early 2014, 40 hippos have been reported to exist in Puerto Triunfo, Antioquia from the original four belonging to Escobar. The National Geographic Channel produced a documentary about them titled Cocaine Hippos.
Most of this information was collected from my own experiences living in Africa or from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hippopotamus